King George V
King George V; drawing by David Levine

Posterity suspects with some justice that commemorative biographers never tell the truth about the dead. Too many people have to die before they can get at it and, even if they could, they have to avoid libel suits, appease the literary executors who can withdraw permission to quote from letters or journals; they have to wheedle other owners of copyright, placate the family, and soothe friends each of whom is convinced that he or she alone understands the “real” person who has just died. But the official biographers of royalty are faced with an even more exacting task. To perform it they have to become morticians. Massage removes disfiguring scars and injections of Formalin waft away the unpleasant odor of a decaying reputation.

Sir Sidney Lee, the coeditor of the Dictionary of National Biography, was a master of the art. Of the seven deadly sins the one to which Edward VII was most prone was gluttony. Beginning the day with two cigarettes and a cigar, the king sat down to a hearty eight-course English breakfast and displayed no alarm when faced with a substantial luncheon. Then there was tea at which the king would eat a boiled egg or two before attacking the muffins, crumpets, clotted cream, jam, and cakes. Dinner, at which soups, fish, roasts, and game were separated by entrees and during which, halfway through the profusion, the appetite was revived by a sorbet, preceded a session at the bridge table. There whiskeys and soda followed the wines and brandy that had accompanied the meal. But this was not the end. A supper of deviled bones might well be served or, if not, the king expected to find a cold fowl in the anteroom to his bedchamber. Such a regime took its toll, and not for nothing was he known behind his back to his intimates as Tum-Tum.

How did Lee deal with this? The king, he wrote, “appeared somewhat shorter than he really was owing to a tendency to stoutness…. He had a splendid appetite at all times, and never toyed with his food.” This example was not lost on Harold Nicolson, when he came to write the biography of Edward VII’s son. “In private conversation King George was not wont to hide or understate his views: the language he employed had about it the tang and exuberance of the salt sea waves…. The King was not by temperament an equable man.” The resultant biography was not exactly dull—Nicolson wrote too well to incur that criticism—but it did not sparkle.

Few writers could have had less fellow feeling for the king’s personality and foibles. Protocol, orderliness, the punctilious observance of customs and conventions, obsession with what should be worn and how to wear it on every conceivable occasion, in other words the panoply of English upper-class life in those days, were things that Harold Nicolson regarded with weary disdain and his wife with loathing. How was someone who had given up the life of a diplomat to become a writer, and who relished the gossip of the House of Commons, the clubs, and literary and homosexual society, to depict the life of a man whose first thought every day was the level of the barometer? The king cared for none of the arts and spoke no foreign language passably and his principal sedentary interest was stamp collecting (regarded by Nicolson as a deplorable pastime). His enjoyments were racing, yachting, and above all shooting—the king was a superlative shot, invariably killing his birds or stag stone dead.

Here was a man with the interests and prejudices of a pre–First World War naval officer and country squire who, having spent three years as a boy sailing round the world, determined to see as little of it again as he could and hated abroad. Harold Nicolson was far too much a man of public affairs to believe like Strachey that politics was a degrading pursuit which distorted true values; and he retained more of the snobberies and prejudices of his class than he imagined. But for all his admiration of George V’s solid virtues and unshakable adherence to constitutional monarchy, the king embodied just that oak-bottomed conservation of a former age which Nicolson found unendurable.

Kenneth Rose’s biography is in a different class. It is not just that he has been able, of course, to draw on the memoirs and indiscretions of the past thirty years. Unlike Nicolson he talked to members of George V’s family, notably Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and the king’s cousin, Princess Alice, who died well into her nineties, chipper to the last. As a result the king steps out of his coffin and one hears his guffaw and tone of voice. Rose is an incomparable chronicler of aristocratic life in the first half of this century. During the war he served in the Brigade of Guards and he has been for years the principal columnist on the conservative Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. How the establishment reacts and how each part of it regards the other is his specialty. He is on too good terms with this world to question the existence of hierarchies and no doubt reassures himself that in the next, so we are assured, seraphim and cherubim are succeeded in the angelic host by thrones, dominations, virtues, and powers. His English prose embellishes his subject. Not for him the homespun cross-stitch of academic prose or the knitwear of so many worthy biographers. He writes in brocade and to read him is like eating turtle soup laced with sherry.


But there is more to it than that. “The world,” wrote Horace Walpole, “is a comedy to those that think and a tragedy to those that feel.” Like Disraeli writing to “The Faery,” Rose sees the court and the political world as a comedy of manners; and like Disraeli he stands a little to one side of it and is amused by what he sees. His two previous books, on Curzon and on the later Cecils, are uproarious. He does not mock the eccentricities of these aristocrats, he rejoices in them. His amusement springs from his delight in the spectacle of such ininhibited spontaneity, self-confidence, and reckless disregard of the opinion of others. He does not adulate the court or twit the politicians who come into conflict with it. Similarly, having piled up instances of the king’s testy bourbonism, Rose produces a story or a sentence that shows how the king’s sense of decency saved him from his own nature. So inspired is his choice of words that no anecdote ever seems superfluous. It is a disarming book.

George V accepted Bagehot’s contention that there are arguments for not having a court and that there are arguments for not having a splendid court, but no arguments for having a mean court. The scale on which the king lived was fabulous. Even at Balmoral, the Scottish summer castle retreat, there were eight footmen and five pipers for a small dinner party, and when the house party picnicked on the moors or by the river, Daimlers with gold-plated radiators delivered baskets of food and wine served by footmen. When the king went there by rail from London, seventeen locomotives on the way would wait with steam up in case the one hauling the royal train broke down. When the king and queen visited friends, two hundred people would sleep in the house. But the queue of willing and able hosts was consequently on the short side.

At the palace there were one hundred upper and four hundred lower servants and the upper servants sat down each day to a four-course meal with white wine and sherry. To his servants the king behaved like the good squire in fiction. He once helped one of the boys on his estate with his mathematics homework and was somewhat put out when the boy declined a second offer of help. “You got it wrong last time,” explained the boy to the king’s intense enjoyment. His courtiers were treated no differently from his servants. If something went wrong there was an explosion. They worked long hours and had to bear with his temper. One of his private secretaries recalled: “We had a rare rough and tumble, and the roof of the whole castle nearly cracked from the violent vibrations of the Monarch’s voice.” “That’s right, break up the bloody Palace,” he said to a terrified footman who dropped a tea tray. “Good God, you can’t come like that, you’re in the wrong clothes,” and the offending equerry was sent back to change from trousers into knee breeches.

But the footman was not sacked and an equerry who had been struck by royal lightning would be told the next day, “I fear I was somewhat irritable, but you know it means nothing.” To a discomfited wellborn courtier who complained of rough treatment the king’s secretary explained: “We are all servants here, although some are more important than others.” Yet when a colonial governor retired the king said to him, “I know what you are feeling. You have been away a long time, trying very hard to get things done. You have not succeeded as you hoped, but no one seems to realize that you have even tried, or that you have been having a hard time, or bothered to say thank you. Well, I say thank you.”

When he came to the throne the smart set were soon saying how dull the court was. Gone were the Edwardian mistresses, the financiers, there was no bridge, and early hours were kept after dinner. The king, who was not as tactful as his father, left no one in any doubt what he meant. Nor was he a good European. What mattered to him was the empire. After 1923, he declared he would make no further state visits abroad. Certainly not to Holland. “Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and all the other dams. Damned if I’ll do it.” He refused to go to a warm climate when convalescing after an illness that had nearly killed him and went instead to a south coast resort called Bognor. There a deputation of its citizens waited upon the king to request that henceforth the town might be known as Bognor Regis. “Bugger Bognor,” said the king. On this occasion his secretary thought it wise to mediate the message and informed the delegation that His Majesty had been graciously pleased to grant their request.


To Sir Robert Vansittart, the head of the Foreign Office, whose communications he thought verbose and over-elaborate, he said, “I have read your memorandum, not all of it, of course.” When Lindbergh was presented to him, Nicolson tells us that the young aviator was “immediately comforted by the breezy questions the King put to him about the details of his solitary flight.” Kenneth Rose tells us what one of the breezy questions was: “Now tell me,’ he began, echoing the thought that must have crossed the minds of so many of his subjects, ‘there is one thing I long to know. How did you manage?’ ”

He had a strong but circumscribed sense of humor. What the Victorians called chaff came all to easily to him. When he discovered that his sister, the queen of Norway, carried a handkerchief for her spaniel, he pursued her all day with remarks such as “Where are its galoshes?” and “Don’t forget its cough-drops.” Queen Mary might avert her eyes when the chorus in No, no, Nanette appeared in the spacious bathing suits of those days, but the king was no prude. He made Lord Louis Mountbatten repeat time and again the story of the archbishop of Uppsala, who prided himself on his English, preparing to show Mountbatten’s sister some vestments in the chest of drawers in the sacristy. “I will now open these trousers and reveal some even more precious treasures to Your Royal Highness.”

His behavior to his children was atrocious. He hazed them in his best quarterdeck manner from the time they got to the schoolroom, and his treatment of the prince of Wales was notorious. His reprimands for some ludicrous breach of dress or deportment was the Victorian age rebuking the Twenties, and there was overwhelming sympathy for the young prince who was thought to be symbolic of postwar values and liberation while the court was regarded as symbolic of an outdated hierarchical society that was being replaced by the freewheeling world of celebrities. The symbolism was false. The king, as he so often did with others, had summed up the prince’s character to a tee and, though never giving him credit for his magical charm, dreaded the succession of someone so selfish and so cavalier about the constitutional constraints that should rule his conduct. Those who married into the family were luckier. “Unlike his children,” said Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, “I was never afraid of him and he never spoke one unkind or abrupt word to me.”

George V lived at a time when sport and games were valued by the British far more than the arts, although the only sport he shared with the majority of his subjects was racing. He went as his duty to Fidelio (“and damned dull it was”) but musicals were more to his taste, modern painting a joke; and when he was asked to send a cable to Hardy on his seventieth birthday, the cable was sent to the maker of the king’s fishing rods who undoubtedly was called Hardy but was not celebrating his birthday. Rose points out, however, that jokes about his contempt for the arts can be overdone. He read one book a week—how many men do so? They were middlebrow books, but he roared with laughter over Harold Nicolson’s Some People and, astonishingly, read in an unexpurgated edition Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The king saw to it that the Order of Merit, an honor which was in his hands alone and not in those of the prime minister, was offered to Hardy, Bridges, Kipling, Shaw, and Housman, the last three of whom refused it.

Nor did the king share the color prejudices of the upper classes. From his visit to India in the second year of his reign he loudly complained of the way the British treated Indians; and when Indian princes and dignitaries came to the palace in London he saw that they were treated with honor. Not only Indians: the Thai Prince Chula, when a student at Cambridge, would be invited to lunch and asked by the king, “How’s your uncle Damrong? I always tell him he’ll never get well until he’s damn right.” It was because the king had such a sterling character, or what the eighteenth century called bottom, that, despite his instinctive suspicion that any change was for the worse, he was a model constitutional monarch.

Immediately after he became king he was faced with the gravest constitutional crisis of his reign. The Liberal government was determined to stop the House of Lords, which was dominated by Conservative peers, from blocking the government’s legislation. The prime minister demanded that the king should be prepared to give a pledge in secret to create an unlimited number of Liberal peers to obtain a majority in the House of Lords for the Parliament bill and thus break the Lords’ power of veto over the Commons.

The king disliked secret pledges. He disliked even more being bullied by Asquith and Crewe. But he never contemplated rejecting his prime minister’s advice. Then again after the war the Conservative prime minister Bonar Law fell ill with cancer of the throat and sent word that he was too sick to advise the king whom to choose as his successor. The king canvassed the views of the Conservative party and, knowing them, rejected the claims of that impossibly superior person Lord Curzon and asked Baldwin to form a government. Curzon protested: if he could not be prime minister because he was a peer, how was it that he could be foreign secretary? “Because the Prime Minister is responsible for everything you do,” replied the king. Rose comments, “No professor of constitutional law or practice could have put it more neatly.”

Toward the end of his reign he took, however, one decision about which there will continue to be controversy. In 1931 he helped to form a national government. Did he put a foot wrong when he did so after the American bankers refused to support the pound unless Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government reduced public expenditure and, in particular, cut unemployment benefits by 10 percent? Labour had no absolute majority and was governing only with the consent and support of the Liberals. From the start MacDonald’s Cabinet was split and MacDonald advised the king to see the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties. From that moment the king went all out to create a national government to cope with the financial crisis. By this time the Labour Cabinet was split eleven to nine in favor of accepting the cuts and MacDonald left the Cabinet, saying he was on his way to the palace to resign. The king again refused his resignation and told him to come back next morning and meet Baldwin and Samuel. At that meeting he told the three men to put nation before party and form an emergency government. They did so; and MacDonald returned to his Cabinet that afternoon to ask who would join him in such a government. Only three would. After the emergency measures were taken MacDonald called a general election and the Labour party was wiped out, winning only fifty-six seats out of more than six hundred.

Ever since then it has been part of Labour’s saga that the crisis was a “banker’s ramp” and that the king acted unconstitutionally. Did not MacDonald try three times to resign and on each occasion was told by the king that it was his duty not to do so? Rose is certainly right that the king did not act unconstitutionally. So long as the sovereign follows the advice of his prime minister he or she is in the clear. The king was entitled to persuade MacDonald and at no time did he act contrary to his advice. Nor was he under any obligation to consult the Labour party as Harold Laski used to argue: indeed when he asked at one stage whether he should send for the Labour foreign secretary, Arthur Henderson, the prime minister advised him not to do so. Moreover, the king could hardly be blamed for thinking that the only way to regain world confidence in British solvency was the formation of a ministry of all talents in which all parties would share the odium of cutting public expenditure.

And yet I do not think that Rose has got it quite right. The Labour party had a legitimate grievance. It was Sir Herbert Samuel who first put to the king the idea of a national government. Sovereigns are apt to favor such a notion because to them party politics seem to be a matter of degrading squabbles, whereas the affairs of the nation, in their view, could be better served by a government of “strong men representing all shades of opinion.” But the king had an alternative. He could have accepted MacDonald’s resignation and sent for Baldwin and asked him to form a government with Liberal support, which Samuel would have given. Baldwin should have held out for the premiership, and only his notorious indolence and dilatoriness put him in a position where he accepted a solution contrary to his own view of parliamentary politics (in which Conservatives ruled opposite a strong but loyal Labour opposition), and contrary to his own interests, since he ended up as lord president of the council on a meager salary instead of prime minister.

If Baldwin and Samuel had formed a government, Labour would still have gone down to defeat and would have been judged to have run away from the crisis—or to have been willing to plunge the country into an inflation such as had ruined Germany ten years before. But it would not have been such a catastrophic defeat if they had not been put in the position of appearing to desert their leader. Their annihilation at the polls meant that Britain had no effective opposition for four years at a time when new ideas and alternatives, such as Keynes was proposing, could have been debated in Parliament.

What the king did was to wreck the party system. The pivot of power in Britain is not the prime minister but party; and it is arguable that a prime minister should be asked to form a government only if his own party is willing to follow him. What is more the national government was soon shown to be a miasma. A year later the Ottawa agreements imposing tariffs on all imports other than those from the dominions brought the resignations of one of MacDonald’s former Labour colleagues, Snowden, as well as of Samuel and some other Liberals. And so today among other items on Tony Benn’s lengthy platform stands a proposal to deprive the sovereign of any role in the formation of governments, as has been done in Sweden.

Part of the trouble was that the king liked MacDonald, whom he preferred to the indolent Baldwin. He detested Lloyd George. At the beginning of his reign he objected to the violence of Lloyd George’s speeches in public (though they never went as far as the violence of the king’s impromptus in private). He was on better ground when he complained that as prime minister Lloyd George usually disregarded his views and treated him contemptuously. He was on better ground still for loathing Lloyd George’s devious ways and his corrupting influence on political and public life: in particular the king was embarrassed by the way he sold honors to dubious people. Lloyd George despised the king for interfering in some matters that were crucial, such as the dismissal during the war of the chief of the Imperial General Staff, and some that were silly, such as rebuking the lord chancellor for wearing a trilby hat. When years later the king attempted to get him to tone down his memoirs Lloyd George exploded: “He can go to hell. I owe him nothing. He owes his throne to me.” It was untrue; but in their exchanges, the score was about even.

Only once during his reign can the king be said to have fallen below the standards he set himself. When his cousin Czar Nicholas of Russia was deposed, Milyukov, the foreign minister of the provisional government, suggested that the czar and his family should go into exile in England, and Lloyd George and Bonar Law agreed with the king’s secretary to accept the proposal. Unfortunately for the czar, Milyukov delayed. The king then began to have second thoughts. Russian autocracy was detested in England and the palace had received numbers of letters urging that the new Russian democracy should not be discouraged by Britain appearing to side with absolutism. So the king wrote letter after letter to his ministers emphasizing the criticism to which he would be exposed if the czar took refuge in England. What if the antimonarchical poison spread to England? The czar was already the victim of a whispering campaign by the jingos, and the czarina was particularly hated and regarded as pro-German.

Eventually the foreign minister, Arthur Balfour, and the British ambassador in Petrograd caved in. By the time the provisional government was ready to dispatch the czar, the British ambassador simply ignored Milyukov’s requests to receive him. Rose’s account does not differ materially from that of Nicolson. But he is far more outspoken in his criticism of the king and his private secretary, who later forgot the part they had played and loudly denounced the Bolsheviks. Mercifully for them, Lloyd George did not blow the story in his memoirs. Nations sometimes have to turn against former allies and disown them; but when, overtaken by the turn of fortune, a former ally’s life is at stake and he is fleeing from the scene of his disgrace, it is always shabby to refuse him asylum. The spectacle of America and Britain denying entry to the Shah when a dying man was odious. To posterity the excuse of raison d’état always appears ignoble.

During his lifetime King George was often caricatured as a henpecked husband, so formidable did Queen Mary appear to be. The reverse was the truth. No patriarch was ever more absolute. He adored her and never looked elsewhere; but he could tell her so only on paper and their early married life, spent in a poky cottage on the Sandringham estate, was marred by her noisy, intrusive sisters-in-law who were jealous of her. As a child in Germany she had been full of laughter and high spirits. They disappeared under a carapace of shyness and formality as she became betrothed first to the heir to the throne, the vacuous Prince Eddy, and then on his sudden death to his brother. It may seem to some that she would have felt humiliated to be a pawn in the dynastic marriage market, but she had probably felt far more humiliation as being the child of poor royalty, a family marred in the eyes of Continental royalty by its descent from a morganatic marriage. So improvident and feckless were her parents that for a time they had to flee their creditors in England and live in Florence. Queen Mary had known what it was to be, as she put it, “in Short Street.”

From the day her husband became king, his word was law. Queen Mary would tolerate no contradiction of his views by her children or by any of their guests. He ordered her to disregard fashion. Once after the war she and her lady-in-waiting tried to lift their skirts an inch above the ankle. There was an explosion of monarchical wrath; and from then on her toques and parasols and stately gowns, at first mocked for being so out of fashion, came to be regarded as much a part of the London landscape as the dome of St. Paul’s. She liked sightseeing; he did not, and on their only Mediterranean cruise he made it miserable for her by joining his spinster sister Princess Victoria in poking fun at her wish to sightsee. She liked collecting antique furniture and bibelots, but if she talked about her hobby at the table he stopped her. Shooting parties bored her—“I would have turned cartwheels for sixpence,” she said of them—but never in his hearing.

She saw only one role for herself—that of Queen Consort whose life should be devoted to making the king happy and protecting him. But not even royalty can escape the fact that all of us have to fulfill a number of roles; and her all-absorbed devotion in her role as queen made her neglect the role a mother ought to play. She never protected her children against their father’s petty tyrannies and trusted too much in the judgment of their nurses, tutors, and mentors.

A brilliant biographer, James Pope-Hennessy, wrote Queen Mary’s official life. His volume ran to well over six hundred pages: it took him 272 pages to her marriage and 418 to the time she became queen. In her new book Anne Edwards gets her married in 86 pages and she is queen in 215. Pope-Hennessy was enchanted by the labyrinthine relationship of German royalty and their courts, going back to George III’s queen who was born a duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and was Queen Mary’s great-grandmother; and the collaterals of the improvident Teck family may have reminded him of that scandalous spoof of all royal memoirs called My Royal Past by Cecil Beaton, who photographed Tilly Losch impersonating the grand duchess and Tony Gandarillas in drag as her wretched lady-in-waiting the Baroness von Bülop. Anne Edwards, who has entitled her book Matriarch, does not display the same interest in Princess Mary’s early life: perhaps understandably she feels she can skip the details of the row Queen Victoria had with her mother about her confirmation. The figure she wants to portray is not the girl Princess Alice, who married her brother, remembered “always in fits of laughter,” but the awe-inspiring—even Nancy Astor was intimidated by her—Queen Consort whom no one after the death of the king thought of calling, as they do Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mother.

Kenneth Rose supersedes Harold Nicolson. Anne Edwards never intended to replace Pope-Hennessy. (She spells the word “supercedes” and refers, a solecism to make all good courtiers blench, to Queen Mary’s first daughter-in-law as Lady Bowes-Lyon. The index suggests that Queen Maude of Norway rather than the worthy Aylmer Maude translated Tolstoy’s works. Nor should one go to her for analysis. Her account of the refusal to grant the czar asylum is wrong in almost every detail. She does not dwell on anything that might diminish her subject. Here is Kenneth Rose describing Queen Mary’s art in acquiring antiques:

The Queen brought both knowledge and the wiles of the predator to enlarging the Windsor collections…. Visiting the homes of friends, acquaintances and strangers, sometimes self-invited, she would stand in front of a covetable object and pronounce in measured tones: “I am caressing it with my eyes.” If that evoked no impulsive gesture of generosity, the Queen would resume her tour. But on taking her leave, she would pause on the doorstep and ask: “May I go back and say good-bye to that dear little cabinet?” Should even that touching appeal fail to melt the granite heart of her host, her letter of thanks might include a request to buy the piece.

No such description would sully Anne Edwards’s pages. For her—and in this she is not wrong—Queen Mary’s finest hour came at the time of the abdication. For what justification has a monarchy unless duty and service take precedence over personal passions? What excites her is the pageant of royalty, and she describes each coronation, wedding, or funeral in wide-eyed detail. It is royalty on television, a trans-Atlantic soap opera; and since she has a sense of drama, her book will please those who like that kind of thing.

That the royal family would become for many a fantasy family in a television serial was foreseen in 1953, the year of the queen’s coronation, by two sociologists.* Edward Shils and Michael Young pointed out that people of all ages found some royal person with whose situation in life they could identify. Royalty provided the pattern for ordinary family life except that they lived a more varied existence and in a grander manner. There were the royal babies, and teen-age princes and debutante daughters; there were young unmarrieds sometimes larking about, and perhaps a little bit of an anxiety to their parents; there were newlyweds making a love nest; there were satisfactory (or not so satisfactory) in-laws; there were fathers and mothers, there were even divorces and disappointments; and finally there were great matriarchs who never retired, such as Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Was the passion in royalty simple snobbery?

Shils and Young gave a more sophisticated explanation. They argued that the monarchy symbolized the moral rules of society and heightened the moral and civic sensibility of society by the institutions and individuals whom it honored. Every society has standards and obligations and the men and women in it often evade these standards and dishonor their obligations. Life was rough on the American frontier but the roughest often went to revivalist services, just as today the most mixed-up lie on the analyst’s couch. In so doing both acknowledged that moral standards exist. It is society that to some extent sorts out the conflicts egotism produces. It also helps to resolve the conflict in people’s minds between the different values that compete for their loyalty.

How does this come about? Ordinary people don’t read treatises on ethics or morality, they want the values of their society embodied in some symbol. The most obvious candidate for that symbol is the central authority in society, namely the State. But the State, symbol though it may be of authority, attracts hostility as much as loyalty because it often seems to be laying down rules that challenge other codes, religious or secular, by which men live. When long ago the monarchy was the State, this hostility rubbed off on the monarchy—and one king, Charles I, died on the scaffold. But when the monarchy became powerless civic hostility came to be directed solely on the organs of government. It was channeled into politics and the monarchy remained untouched by it.

When people in Britain wanted to identify themselves with the good in life, even with the sacred, they looked to the monarchy to embody it; and they found it in the processions and rituals that renewed their faith in the ruler of society and felt safe from those sacrilegious tendencies that spring from the desire, which most people experience, to break the rules. Whether it was the coronation or a routine royal visit to some institution, the monarchy helped to perpetuate that feeling of solidarity with all one’s fellow men that occurs only at very rare intervals, for instance during the Blitz. Royal patronage spread its wings over regiments, societies, universities, charities, hospitals, schools, factories, gardens, sport and games, in a myriad aspects of life so that people could identify with the nation and believe what they were doing was hallowed and approved. When “society,” which still existed when George V came to the throne, disintegrated into hundreds of groups, the court alone remained a constant.

How far is this true today? Certainly there is not the same deference to royalty or to the establishment as there was in those days. In 1957 the luckless John Grigg (he was then Lord Altrincham but disclaimed his hereditary peerage as soon as the law was passed that enabled Benn to retain his seat in the Commons) said in a broadcast that while Prince Philip was an excellent broadcaster, the queen’s style of speaking, i.e., the words put into her mouth by her private secretary, frankly gave him a pain in the neck. The press reported Grigg as saying something quite different, namely that her tone of voice gave him a pain in the neck; and from the outburst of affronted loyalty and the press campaign that followed one expected any day to read that he had been hauled off to the Tower of London to suffer the fate of a terminal pain in the neck. The political career of Lloyd George’s future biographer, who is one of the shrewdest judges of British politics, was forever blasted since no Conservative constituency would thereafter adopt him.

Today when Private Eye refers to the queen as Brenda and almost anything can, and usually is, written about the royal family such an observation would hardly cause a ripple—except at the palace where in those days knowing courtiers quietly took note of what Grigg said and effected a change. For in fact the court is today pretty quick on its feet and usually one jump ahead of public criticism. It remains, as it always will, conservative, but now with a smaller c. No one expects the queen to request Margaret Thatcher to ask Parliament to change the law of primogeniture so that were the prince of Wales to predecease her, Princess Anne would succeed to the throne; nor so far has any black or colored British-born subject been selected to join the higher ranks of her household. But Prince Philip and Prince Charles make uninhibited comments on the activities (or lack of activity) of one or other establishment institution. They also criticize, much to the alarm of some self-righteous politicians, some of the assumptions that underpin politics. This is a refreshing development which would have astonished George V.

In the Seventies when restructuring institutions and public life was in vogue it was noticeable that although there were a number of proposals by the left to restructure education, the law courts, the police, broadcasting, and the press, there was no mention of restructuring the monarchy; and even today when the Labour party and the trade unions have been infiltrated by militants, there is still only one overt republican, Willie Hamilton, in the Commons. Some may well think that in a country still so class conscious as Britain and so beset with class bitterness, an institution such as the monarchy that must inevitably be identified with the more conservative parts of the constitution is bound sooner or later to be challenged. On the other hand royal patronage is vastly wider than it was in George V’s days and a good deal more imaginative. Somehow one doesn’t see the queen being required by the government of the day to sign an act of abdication for herself and her heirs. And before she did, she could always dissolve Parliament and compel her prime minister to go to the country. That would indeed be an election fought on a constitutional issue.

This Issue

October 25, 1984